Is There a Sundance Festival Personality?

January 17th, 2013 by Ben

The Sundance festival is here. The big celebration of all that is independent (and Indie-like foreign). Aspiring filmmakers from all over the world send their small-budget features in hopes to gain the support of a big distributor and make a name for themselves. Some of today’s brightest filmmakers started their careers this way – Kevin Smith, David O. Russel, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderberg, to name a few in the sea of notorious artists that changed the landscape of modern cinema, and maybe also our lives.

Nevertheless, after 35 years, it’s a good time to check if there’s such thing as a Sundance personality.  In other words, is there a “typical” Sundance title (regardless if it’s American, foreign or documentary)? So I decided to embark on a quest deep into Jinni’s movie genome, to find out which genes are the key components to make a trendy Sundance feature and which we shouldn’t expect to see to much.

The 253 movies in our catalog that have the gene Sundance festival winner showed me that first and foremost, Sundance is about being Realistic and Serious. If your kick is space and aliens, legends and myths, or grossout humor – better try elsewhere.

Moving on – small budget means you can forget about expensive plots involving races, explosives or creations of period setting, or futuristic or alternative worlds. And so, many titles are contemporary, intimate, sincere and contemplative. They deal with the less positive aspects of our society, with family relations and problems, or with couples-relations, all of which heavily projecting on characters’ minds and souls. Or to sum up, If life is a bitch, Sundance is the place to reflect on that. At least in many (mostly non-documentary) cases, these reflections end up with a touching note.

What is more surprising, are the genes that are not that typically found in the Sundance personality: if you think most titles are clever or thought provoking – hmmmm, not really. Contemplative – yes, but as far as leaving you to contemplate about them hours or days afterwards – less than I expected. They’re also not as slow as one may think. And finally, titles about youth, coming of age or friendship, are also not that popular among the winners. Less surprising is the absence of genres like thrillers, action, romance and comedies – check in your nearest studio for those. On the other hand, I think you can give credit to the festival in the sense that whenever there’s a movie that fits one of the less common genes, like disturbing or humorous, it REALLY is just that. They don’t supply secondhand quality, and in that sense, it is always a festival to be looking forward to.

And last, to all of you aspiring filmmakers that try to participate in hopes to rise to fame – usually critics see eye to eye with the judges, and most winners are also critically acclaimed. However, don’t have high box office expectations from your winning movie – modest earnings yes, a blockbuster – forget it. Maybe your next (studio) movie.

So now that a personality has evolved, I give you:

Sundance – The Conventional Features:

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

This family relations drama marks the breakthrough of fresh director Noah Baumbach, who went on to make bigger projects in hollywood after achieving critical acclaim. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both writers that are in the process of getting divorced, hurling their lives upside down, and creating a complicated situation of favoritism amongst their children. The now-famous Jesse Eisenberg plays the role of the adult son who also struggles with the separation and tries to cope with his normal life while trying to achieve his goals. As you can see, Sundance can present as a leap towards greater opportunities. There is no doubt Noah and Jesse have taken advantage of that.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

This disturbing documentary brings to light a seemingly “normal” and ordinary american family. It details some of the albeit regular trials and tribulations of the Friedman family – parents getting divorced, father being somewhat absent though is still supportive through the tougher times. Slowly but surely, we are being exposed to some very disturbing info about the father being a buyer and distributer of a child pornography. The movie does so well to present how “normal” some people act and live, when under the surface something extremely dark and evil can be lurking. Personally it made me become extremely skeptical about other people and also scared me completely.

Five Minutes of Heaven (2009)

Based on a true story, this drama tells the story of a former UVF member (played by Liam Neeson) who shot a young boy three times in the name of the organization. 25 years after imprisonment, the media tries to arrange a meeting between Neeson, and the brother of the boy he killed to try and reconcile. We follow Neeson’s regretful past, remorse and need of redeeming himself. It is a story about how people deal with death, and criticizes youthful devotion towards religious and cults that can blind your actions and judgment. Nothing delves deeper into the mind and soul than a tragic event that can haunt you your entire life.

Grizzly Man (2005)

This documentary tells the captivating story of Timothy Treadwell, a bear expert that traveled to Alaska every year with the goal of studying and protecting wild bears. On October 2003 Timothy together with his girlfriend gets eaten by one of the very bears he was trying to protect. Director Werner Herzog managed to get his hands on a great deal of footage that Timothy took of his time in the wild, and through it he explores Timothy’s life and death together with members of his family.
This documentary is unique in it’s atmospheric mood, while managing to stay tense through a delicate subject that might not be an easy viewing experience for some viewers.

You Can Count On Me (2000)

This sincere and touching family relations drama tell the story of a single mother whose life is turned upside down when her sibling returns home after a long absence. The two siblings have both been scarred by the tragic death of their parents in a car accident. Mark Ruffalo plays the drifter sibling who is lost in life, looking for direction and purpose. In one of the earliest roles of his career, he achieved acclaim and slowly climbed the ladder of success.

Sundance – The Unconventional Features:

13 Tzameti (2005)

Coming from france, ‘13 Tzameti’ tells the story of Sebastian, a young man in need of money.  Out of desperation, he follows the instructions of a mysterious job to a house in the middle of the woods where men gamble on the lives of other men. ‘13 Tzameti’ exposes us to a tense, bleak world and keeps us on the edge of our seat, literally.

Saving Grace (2000)

From the UK we got an offbeat comedy that is truly hilarious. Grace is a fresh widow, who discovers that her husband mortgaged all of their belongings before he died, which means the bank is about to foreclose everything she has. With seemingly no other choice, Grace starts doing the unthinkable – she starts selling marijuana! Yes, you heard me! Slowly but surely it looks like she will be able to pay her debt. Loaded with an ensemble of whacky characters, this feel good comedy manages to take the bad and turn it into ridiculous, take it from me, I can still feel the pain in my belly as I laughed the whole time through.

Thirteen (2003)

‘Thirteen’ is Catherine Hardwick who went on to direct the mainstream sensation  ‘Twilight’, had her directional debut with this film. It’s also the 2nd movie role of nowadays-famous Evan Rachel Wood, so this is another successful career boost for 2 of Hollywood’s most talented. The story is about teenage life and friendship, less common genes in a Sundance title. It’s the story of Tracy, a teenager whose innocence is lost after she teams up with her cool best friend who is very rebellious and exposes her to a world of petty crime, drugs, and sexual exploration. The movie is loosely based on the early life of Wood’s co-star Nikki Reed.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

It might be a bit of a stretch to call this movie a Period piece, but it’s not often in Sundance that you get to watch a movie that is not contemporary. Dito is a writer from Los Angeles that returns home to Astoria after 15 years time. Being there resurfaces flashbacks from the past. We get to see Dito with his four closest friends and his girlfriend as they all do their best to navigate through the world of petty crime, family, and sex. Both Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum made a lot of TV movies before bursting into the big screen in this indie film. Both went on to become Hollywood superstars.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

I thought to end this unusual list with a truly unusual feature, and so here comes Hedwig. It is a musical , a punk rock musical which is something that is rarely found at festivals. It revolves around a transsexual from Berlin, who tours with his band through the USA, while telling his story along the way in different and odd locations such as diners or junkyards. Naturally being so loud and all-over-the place, it is safe to say this movie is very clever, which is also a component that appears in less than half of our Sundance database, making such a gem very hard to come by. If you believe it or not, this was merely the 2nd movie role of actor Michael Pitt, who went on to play in very prestigious TV shows later on in his career.

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